‘Power Balance’ Hucksters Admit their Product isn’t Based on Scientific Evidence

About 2.5 million people have spent $25 or more on a little rubber bracelet called Power Balance. Perhaps you’veheard of it (or are wearing it). Its makers claim that it “resonates” with the body’s “energy flow” producing extraordinary balance, flexibility and strength in its users.

Well, at least that’s what they used to claim. Now, in a show of candor rare among hucksters (unless they’re being threatened by industry watchdogs, which they are), they’re admitting that the product isn’t backed by an iota of credible scientific evidence. They’ll even send you a refund if you feel you were duped by their advertising.

I suppose that’s not exactly the same as admitting the product doesn’t do what they claim it does. Here’s a quote from Power Balance co-founder Josh Rodermel from The Daily Mail explaining how his product “works”:

Everything in nature has a set frequency. The body has a frequency and things which cause negativity to the human body – like mobile phones and radio waves – break down its natural healing frequency. My brother and I worked out a way of putting good frequencies into our holograms so they balance out the body, making it stronger and more flexible. It works in different ways for different people. Athletes say they can last longer on the field, that they have better balance and that their muscles recover quicker. Non-athletes say it works for them, too, giving them that extra boost off the field, in many areas of life including the office and in the bedroom.

The holograms he’s talking about are identical to those on your credit cards, but evidently you have to use the Power Balance brand of holograms to “balance out the body.” Suffice to say this product is as much a sham as magnet therapy and crystals that align your Chakras. And it once again teaches us a lesson that so few people seem to ever learn: we are more gullible than we’d like to believe, and we’re easier marks than we’d like to admit.

If you were one of the millions duped by Power Balance, don’t feel bad. CNBC named it their “Sports Product of 2010”–an endorsement taken seriously by a whole lot of people. Many of those people also get most of their financial advice from the same source (might want to rethink that, by the way). Celebrities who use and endorse the product include David Beckham, Robert DeNiro, P Diddy, Khloe Kardashian, Shaquille O’Neal, and (gasp) the new princess, Kate Middleton.

But, alas, the pseudoscience song remains the same no matter how many stars or royals get pulled into singing it.

Products that seem to work via mysterious means inaccessible to scientific investigation are more than likely bullpucky and always have been. Their makers have always used sophistry and fuzzy explanations to sell them, and have always relied on the power of suggestion to propel the pucky as far as it’ll go. The game never really changes; the shysters just develop craftier ways to circumnavigate our judgment and appeal to what we really want — an easier way to feel better, look better, and be better.

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Smoking Vulture Brains at the World Cup

Picture showing a Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus...

Image via Wikipedia

Who would have thought that the World Cup would be such a disaster for endangered birds? And yet, thanks to a barbaric folk magic belief that involves drying and smoking the brains of vultures, it’s becoming exactly that.

In South African traditional medicine called muti, vulture brains are dried, powdered, and smoked as cigarettes to give users what they believe are dreams about the future—including visions of winning sports teams–making the practice a mainstay of World Cup gamblers, Scientific American reports.

Seven of South Africa’s nine vulture species are endangered, and whether they’ll be able to survive the head chopping rampage of muti devotees–or, more precisely, those profiting from this hideous superstition–is debatable. Other big sellers include snake skins, ostrich feet and donkey fat (to chase away bad spirits), but the vulture is the rarest of all the coveted animals and sells for the highest price.

Under normal market conditions, a tiny bottle of dried vulture brain dust sells for the equivalent of $6.5o US. The dust is mixed with mud and rolled into a stick for smoking.  Other parts of the bird (beak, claws) can also be ground into the mixture. Under typical, non-World Cup market conditions, an entire vulture will sell for about $3000 US.

The rationale behind this belief, if you haven’t already guessed, is that the person smoking the vulture brain will take on the bird’s incredible vision that allows it to find carcasses from miles away. Without the World Cup brain frenzy, wildlife experts predict that the endangered vultures of South Africa have about 20 years left before going totally extinct. With the World Cup, all bets are off.

In addition to Scientific American, the Mother Nature Network served as a source for this post.

The Connection between Tasing Tweaked Sheep and Baseball Freaks

image via New York Daily News

Back in the day, when an overzealous baseball fan ran out onto the field waving a towel, security staff would let him have his fun for a few seconds, and then tackle him and escort him off the field. 

How primitive we were back then!  Now, technology affords us an opportunity to watch the guy ride the lightning before an audience of thousands—you know, Roman style plus about 50,000 volts (those Romans were so far ahead of their time).

I feel especially close to this topic because the infamous “Don’t tase me bro!” incident occurred at my alma mater (more than once have I fought off the urge to buy a “Don’t tase me bro!” t-shirt. I’ll succumb eventually). It’s not one of the institution’s finer moments, but it did kick off a furor over the use of tasers to subdue people who probably aren’t dangerous criminals, but are acting very silly.

Police have argued that even if someone, like the baseball fan, is not overtly dangerous, they have no way of knowing if he or she is on a drug that could elicit dangerous behavior in that moment.  Of all the drugs that might qualify, the one cops fear the most is meth.  The irony, however, is that someone high on meth might very well be at greater risk of having a heart attack when tased. It’s happened before.    

Which is why Taser International funded a study to find out what happens when a nervous system riddled with meth gets blasted. The nervous systems they chose belonged to…sheep. 

The study was published in the April issue of the journal, Academic Emergency Medicine, and reported on by Popular Science.  The findings were that smaller sheep (less than 70.5 lbs) suffered “exacerbated heart symptoms related to meth use.” But “neither the smaller nor larger sheep showed signs of the ventricular fibrillation condition, a highly abnormal heart rhythm that can become fatal.”

As the article points out, not only was the study funded partially by Taser International, but two of the authors are doctors who represent stockholders of the company, and one of them is also its medical director.  So much for impartiality in the peer-review process.

Nevertheless, fudging the findings wouldn’t be in Taser’s best interest, since every death linked to taser use leads to a lawsuit against the company and enormous bad press. Research credibility will be scrutinized during the next lawsuit, you can be sure.

The ‘few good sheep’ in this study provide a cushion against these contingencies, and support Taser’s continued development of bigger weapons, like the already available Taser 12-gauge shotgun (1oo foot range), and the forthcoming Taser grenade launcher.  I’d hate to be the sheep in that test.

Below is a taser montage someone was kind enough to assemble and post on YouTube, set to the song “It’s Electric” by Metallica.

[youtubevid id=”YuNok1PXUjs”]

Tim Tebow and the Psychology of Betting on Human Resolve

Today, NFL teams will announce who they are taking in the draft, and everyone wants to know what’s going to become of the most decorated quarterback in college football, Tim Tebow.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a Florida Gators fan, and I’ll freely admit that I want Tebow to do well in the draft. But my biases aside, I think there’s an interesting story in all of this worth investigating a bit deeper than simple fan partisanship will allow.  Tebow may be the best example in the history of professional sports of what happens when raw human resolve meets hard-core risk analysis.

Here’s the situation in brief: Tebow is an unconventional QB, by NFL standards, in that he’s more prone to run than stand in the pocket; more effective in shotgun formation than under center; and he has an exaggerated throwing motion that leaves the ball exposed for too long before he releases it. 

Physically, Tebow is the prototypical NFL QB. He’s 6’ 3”, 245 lbs, and as strong as many linebackers.  But the combination of the three pitfalls above are overshadowing his physical prowess, and possibly for good reason.  In college, Tebow was stronger and faster than many of his opponents. He didn’t have to stay in the pocket because he could run as well as any running back, barring a few, against most college defenses.  He didn’t have to take the ball under center because he ran the option effectively or just kept the ball himself and ran headlong into the defense. And his throwing motion wasn’t a huge concern because most defensive lines couldn’t get to him in time to strip the ball. 

All of that will be much different in the NFL.  Pro defensive linemen are extremely fast, extremely strong, and they don’t let quarterbacks run very often. A QB who can’t sit in the pocket and release the ball quickly is going to get hurt, and fast. Add to that Tebow’s throwing motion issue and it only gets worse. 

The risk analysis combines all of the above and, on paper, makes Tebow a poor QB draft pick.  He dominated in college with abilities that are not applicable in the NFL.  People like Dallas Cowboy’s owner Jerry Jones have already come to this conclusion and have openly said (though Jones was allegedly drunk when he said it) that he’d never pick Tebow for his team.  Sloshed or not, I’m sure several owners have thought or said the same thing.

So if that’s all true, why isn’t this the end of the story?  The information available for risk analysis seems to unequivocally result in a NO decision on Tebow for any NFL team.

But this is where we have to check into the rest of the story, which I’m going to call the anti-deterministic position on human risk analysis.  The deficiencies identified in the risk analysis are accurate, but they are also incomplete.  When human beings are evaluated in purely mechanistic terms, the analysis will always fall short—chiefly because humans are not machines, and they are not comprised merely of measurable, material components. 

Your car is.  You might be driving on the highway in heavy traffic and wish that you could deftly weave through the lanes of cars faster than anyone else around you, but if your car doesn’t handle well and isn’t especially fast, forget about it. Same goes for any machine you can think of.  It can be mechanically tinkered with to improve performance, but it will not improve performance itself.  All machines, computers included, are restricted by the boundaries of design, structure and programming.

Humans are not, and Tebow happens to be an especially good example of this fact.  What made him a consistent performer in college football was not simply physical ability, but a combination of physical and mental ability with an intense inner drive—which neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky calls the uniquely human trait of “resolving to do the impossible.”  In terms of risk analysis, that trait is not just a wild card–it’s an observable characteristic just as evident as Tebow’s throwing motion or penchant for running. 

Sheena Iyengar, in her new book “The Art of Choosing”, describes this drive to succeed as “survivorship.”  In its most extreme form, it’s what allows people to make it through the worst conditions—conditions that an on-paper risk analysis could only conclude are insurmountable.  Think of those who surived against the odds in concentration camps, or those trapped in the mountains for days during historic blizzards who live to tell their stories. Human resolve to conquer the unconquerable is quite possibly the most formidable force on the planet.

Bringing this back around to the NFL draft: the same traits that Sapolsky and Iyengar describe are those that Tim Tebow has in spades.  The mechanistic risk analysis that some have pointed to as reason not to draft Tebow at all is just the wrapper on a stick of gum. 

Human resolve has proven this analysis incomplete time and time again, and I have a strong feeling that the same will happen this time.  One forward-thinking team will recognize this and give Tebow an opportunity to prove it. I have little doubt that in time he’ll do exactly that.

The Day I Lost My Bowling Walk

no original description

Image via Wikipedia

I don’t like to brag, but I’ve been known to bowl. Not that I’d have much to brag about because I’m really not very good. On any given day at the lanes, I’ll start around 140ish and steadily get worse until my six year old asks if I want to use the kiddie bumpers. Nevertheless, I’ve enjoyed bowling since I was a wee lad, which is what makes the day I lost my bowling walk so peculiar.

What I mean by “bowling walk” is the sequence of steps you take while raising your arm to roll the ball just before approaching the penalty line. The sequence is crucial because it regulates the movements required to release the ball at just the right time. The important thing to know is that after bowling for even a short time, the sequence starts happening without the bowler having to think about it. Sort of like dance steps—you learn them, and then your body takes over.

But on this particular day, I thought about it. I distinctly recall that I was about midway through the sequence when I just stopped walking. I had no idea why, so I walked back to my starting point and began again. And again, midway through, I stopped.

I turned around and looked at a friend sitting at the scorer’s table. “What are you doing?” he asked, probably wondering if I’d had a few too many beers. I shook my head. “I’m not sure, but, um, I think I’ve lost my bowling walk.”

“Your what?”

For the next several minutes I tried to figure out what the hell was going on. I went back to my starting point and counted steps to the line, but that didn’t work. So then I tried a “left, right, left, right” approach, which also didn’t work. In fact, everything I consciously tried to remedy the problem was making it worse. My friend even attempted to walk me through it, but the funny thing is that as soon as he tried to dissect his bowling walk, he started screwing up, and we looked like a pair of stumbling idiots.

I liken this event to a few others I’ve experienced, all involving the same principle. One was the day I forgot how to swing a golf club. I mean, I could “swing” the club just fine, but I couldn’t recall the sequence of movements required to execute a proper golf swing. Same problem as the bowling walk lapse, same reason: I started thinking about the movements.

Even more tragic was the day I forgot how to clip my finger nails. From the right hand clipping the left, no problem. But suddenly when I tried clipping the right from the left, it was as if I’d encountered a strange new calculus of physical precision that I’d never experienced before. I thought to myself, “What the f—- is wrong with me?”  Thankfully that lapse didn’t last long or I might have checked myself in somewhere “quiet.”

Recent neuroscience research has much to say about why this happens. The trick is understanding what’s going on in the brain during “self-initiated movements”—those we think through—and “automatic movements”—those that happen without thinking, like a bowling walk.     

A 2004 study published in the Journal of Neurophysiology used fMRI to examine brains of people before and after their self-initiated movements became automatic movements (the researchers gave the participants tasks to learn, designed to emulate what happens when someone stops thinking about a sequence of movements and starts doing them automatically).

What they discovered is that when a task becomes automatic, activity in multiple brain regions decreases, particularly regions constituting the motor network. The reason for this change is that the motor network becomes increasingly more efficient in executing the movements, requiring less activity. In a sense, the sequential steps are made more energy efficient with practice, until the brain doesn’t have to spend much energy processing them at all.

Going back to the bowling walk example: when I stopped and thought about the sequence, I threw a monkey wrench into what had been a well-tuned, energy-efficient motor network. And the more I screwed with it, the more out-of-tune the network became. In the end, I had to totally stop, take a break and clear my head before the walk returned of its own accord.

The takeaway from all of this is that it’s not always such a great idea to think too much. Automatic pilot isn’t necessarily a bad thing—it’s part of how our brain conserves resources. So go with that and roll, swing, dance, clip or whatever it is you like to do. Just do it. Your brain has the details under control.

In Politics and Sports, Conspiracy Theorists Make the Same Error

LaneKiffin

Image of Lane Kiffin via Wikipedia

Can you imagine a world without conspiracy theories?  I’ve tried and can’t quite get there. So pervasive is the human tendency to want a “meaning” behind events–even if that meaning is a contorted network of impossibilities–I can’t see any way to envision us without it.  The conspiratorial urge is robust and infectious, with no known cure.

We see this evidenced in politics all the time (the neurotically persistent “birthers” and 9/11 conspiratorialists, for example) — but it’s just as true in other walks of life. Right now college football is experiencing a run-in with this shadow of human nature, and the game is getting ugly.

Quick overview for those who may not follow college football:  in the Southeastern Conference (SEC), two teams remain undefeated, Alabama in the SEC West and Florida in the SEC East.  They are also ranked #1 and #2 in the national college football polls.  Last year, the same two teams played a grueling game in the SEC Championship, so hype about a rematch has been buzzing ever since last season.  Halfway through this season, the rematch is becoming more and more likely, though not by any means inevitable.

So far, so good.  Now, enter two peripheral variables:  first– SEC officiating this season has been atrocious.  In multiple games, SEC referees have made horrible calls, in some cases affecting the outcome of the game.  I mentioned one example in a previous post and there’s been more since.  It’s gotten so bad that one set of SEC refs has been suspended by the conference for making bad calls in back-to-back games.  This is unfortunate, but sadly not uncommon. Conferences don’t typically suspend refs, but all conferences are plagued by bad calls–it’s the nature of a game officiated by imperfect humans.  Even with instant replay, every call ultimately relies on human perception and interpretation, and we all share dramatic debits in both of those columns.

Enter the second variable: the conspiratorial instigator.  Lane Kiffin, new coach of the Tennessee Volunteers, has nominated himself the Joe McCarthy of college football by accusing the league and the refs and anyone else involved of conspiring to keep Alabama and Florida undefeated, so that the much-hyped rematch will happen and big money will follow.

Kiffin’s team, you see, has lost to both of the undefeated SEC teams in question, and he’s a little bitter about that.  But beyond bitterness, he’s also prone to conspiratorial paranoia. Before the season started he publicly accused Florida head coach Urban Meyer of “cheating” in an attempt to recruit a player who ultimately decided to play for Tennessee.  His accusation was unfounded and the league made him apologize for his character defaming remarks.

After his team’s loss to Alabama last Saturday, Kiffin is back at it. He accused the SEC refs who called the game of intentionally not calling penalties on Alabama, with the strong implication that they did so because the conference wants Alabama to stay undefeated.  To his credit, the SEC commissioner reprimanded Kiffen for his zanny remarks and threatened a coaching suspension if he makes one more.

The thing is, Kiffin’s conspiracy mania is spreading.  College football message boards, blogs, and every other public venue are humming with agitation. “How could it possibly be a coincidence that SEC refs are screwing up so much this year AND Alabama and Florida remain undefeated heading toward a potential rematch?” the agitators ask.  The SEC must be behind this–no, the whole damn NCAA must be behind this!  It’s all about advertising dollars and publicity for the championship!  Conspiracy!

It’s easy enough to identify the combustible elements of this insanity, and when you add a spark of bitterness-tinged paranoia from a guy like Kiffin, it’s easy to see how the insanity has exploded.

I tell you this not because I think anyone needs to pay special attention to college football, but rather to point out the underlying error that makes this and every other conspiracy viable.  Some call it the fundamental attribution error, others call it correspondence bias — but whichever term you prefer, the result is the same: believing that the behavior of others occurs apart from any situational context.

If you think that, then you’re a short step away from ascribing secretive or sinister motives to their behavior.  In fact, whatever your personal predisposition happens to be will likely guide your interpretation of others’ behavior, despite whatever situational context exists that makes your interpretation a steaming mound of horse shite.  If my team loses, it’s not because we were beaten by a better team, it’s because we fell victim to the malevolent motivations of others – simple as that.

According to the “just-world hypothesis,” we can’t stomach the possibility that events may simply happen without a means to explain them in some larger, sensible way. Conspiracy theory provides a framework for making sense of the random — for trumping the contingencies of living in a contingency-ruled world. This isn’t really possible, but conspiracy theory makes it seem possible by giving us someone to blame.

Which is why conspiracy will always be with us — it’s another mental escape hatch from the tyranny of the random.  Regrettably, it also feeds the worst part of our natures.